“Engaging With Keller” Review // Ch. 5 “Timothy Keller’s Hermeneutic: An Example For the Church to Follow?” (Richard Holst)

We are more than halfway through reviewing Engaging With Keller, and today’s chapter, written by Richard Holst, examines whether Tim Keller’s ‘hermeneutic’ is faithful and confessional.  I will admit three issues up front I had with this chapter.  First, Holst doesn’t define Keller’s ‘hermeneutic’.  He critiques Keller’s exegesis at several passages, but exegesis and hermeneutics are distinct terms and it seems that Holst interchanges them throughout the chapter.  In addition, when we speak of a pastor or theologian’s ‘hermeneutic’ there is the notion of some identifiable system by which that person interprets Scripture.  This was nowhere stated or defined in the chapter.

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Second, while I myself disagree with Keller’s exegesis from time to time, I wonder if he is that much worse than many Puritan writers or even the great Charles Spurgeon.  While the sermons of the Puritans and Spurgeon are beautiful, they don’t necessarily inspire confidence in every exegetical detail.

Third, Holst is very elementary in his discussion of hermeneutics.  He cites portions of the Westminister Confession of Faith (WCF) and the Directory of Public Worship (DPW), but those documents don’t say all that needs to be said about exegesis and hermeneutics, which is why Reformed seminaries like RTS, Westminster, Covenant, etc. go beyond those confessional documents in such discussions.  I think this is relevant in some of Holst’s critique of Keller.

So, what is Holst’s critique of Keller’s so-called hermeneutic?  He articulates three issues:  “(1) the use of parables as the main warrant for what is being taught or as the interpretive lens for the exegesis of other texts. This would be an apparent reversal of the principle that the clearer parts of Scripture should interpret the less clear (WCF 1:9). (2) the use of secondary aspects in the text as the main warrant for what is being taught. This would be an apparent violation of the principle that we should ‘chiefly insist upon those doctrines which are principally intended’ (DPW) in any given text. (3) the use of logical fallacies in exegesis. This would be an apparent violation of the principle that what we teach ‘is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture’ (WCF 1:6).” (p. 177)

Regarding the critique that the use of parables as a ‘main warrant’ for scriptural teaching, I wish Holst would have given us a paragraph or two (or just a long footnote) describing the genre of parable.  They aren’t ‘ambiguous’ as Holst claims, since not all parables are created equal and parables themselves carry different genres.  In addition, the issue with parables may have less to do with ambiguity and more to do with idolatry (Mark 4:12) as G.K. Beale argues.

In any case, Holst first critiques Keller’s well-known book The Prodigal God.  Holst states, “Some of Keller’s distinctive contributions are based upon parables. The most famous example would be The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, Keller’s paradigm-shifting take on the prodigal son.” (p. 178)  Yet, Keller admits his exegesis isn’t a paradigm shift.  He got much of his stuff from Ed Clowney and Henri Nouwen.  Holst’s statement that our excitement for Keller’s thesis “is tempered with a degree of concern. The parable of the Prodigal Son was used as the main proof text for the principal doctrine of Liberalism, the universal spiritual fatherhood of God.” (p. 178) I think a genetic fallacy should make me write a chapter critiquing Holst violating logical principles as well.

Holst also misreads Keller when he says, “This being the case, one could hardly conceive of a concept more contrary to good hermeneutical procedure than to use a parable to define the Christian faith and, thereafter, to understand the rest of Scripture in this light.” (p. 179)  Holst just quoted Keller who says, “I am turning to this familiar story, found in the fifteenth chapter of the gospel of St. Luke, in order to get to the heart of the Christian faith. […] I will demonstrate how the story helps us to understand the Bible as a whole.”  Does Keller really think that Luke 15 is meant by the Spirit to be the interpretive key for the rest of the Bible?  (Is any scripture text even that?) Or, does Keller think the gospel message in Luke 15 the key to understanding the Bible, which is consistent with WCF 1.6?

Holst doesn’t go into Luke 15 anymore (at this point), but he does complain about Keller’s use of Luke 16, where Keller uses this parable as a foundational passage for teaching that hell if self-chosen (people don’t want to leave hell) and that God doesn’t send people to hell or punish them.  However, I demonstrated in my review of Bidwell’s chapter that Keller does not deny the truths that God sends people to hell or punishes them.  So, this section is irrelevant.

The second major criticism from Holst, that Keller uses secondary aspects of a text as the ‘main warrant’ as to what is being taught seems unsupported as well.  (By the way, Holst never defines the phrase ‘main warrant’.) Holst first argues against Keller’s comment that God judges Miriam in Numbers 12 for rejecting Moses’ African wife because of her race.  Holst is right that this isn’t the main point of the text (i.e. the center of the circle), but Holst never proves that this can’t in any way be an application of the text.  Maybe it isn’t a legitimate application, but Holst should be less simplistic in his hermeneutic.

In Holst’s critique of Keller’s exegesis Acts 6, I also grant that Keller isn’t hitting the center of the text in its meaning, but its possible Keller is generalizing about the Acts narrative in his final sentence (p. 183).  If Keller isn’t, point taken Holst.

The critique of Keller’s exegesis of Luke 10:38 is interesting.  Holst assumes that his interpretation of this parable of the rich young ruler is correct, that the issue for the man was ‘justification by works’.  But Reformed exegetes have differed on this point, as the rich young ruler doesn’t seem to be a legalist.  So, I wonder if it is prudent for Holst to take an ‘unclear’ exegetical question and make it part of his critique.

The final complaint from Holst is that Keller employs logical fallacies (consistently) in his exegesis.  To demonstate this claim, Holst claims that the elder brother in Luke 15 isn’t lost as Keller says (p. 186).  I (and many others) heartily disagree.  Jesus begins the parable saying “there were two brothers” , and the elder brother clearly represents the pharisees listening to Jesus minister to sinners and tax collectors at beginning of Luke 15.  The elder brother is never reconciled with the Father at the end of the parable.  Holst gets pretty rationalistic with Keller’s claim that ‘rule keeping’ makes one just as lost as rule breaking (an obvious connection to the self-rightous Pharisees and the licentious sinners and tax collectors), but Keller isn’t setting up a deductive argument…especially in interpreting a parable of all things!

I think it’s appropriate to conclude this review with a word about Holst’s confessional hermeneutics.  One reason why this chapter is the least impressive in the book so far is not only because it seems the leas scholarly, but Holst also makes some confusing statements about the Reformed confessions. I’ll quote Holst and respond in brief.

“This means, among other things, that extra-biblical sources may never control our interpretation. Whatever insights disciplines such as social anthropology, literary theory, second temple Judaism and discourse analysis might offer, none of these things should ever be made the key to understanding Scripture.” (p. 173)  But WCF 1.9 says that Scripture is the only ‘infallible rule’ for interpreting scripture, though not the only rule.  General revelation may serve (and indeed, necessarily serves) as a norm in our interpretatio, but it is never the infallible rule.

“There is, of course, room for exegetical differences. The Assembly was not itself hermeneutically monolithic; the Divines recognized this when they acknowledged that Scripture is not alike in all places ‘plain’. But they were concerned to keep exploration and debate within the boundaries of the agreed system and distillation of doctrine which became the doctrinal standard and tradition of English-speaking Reformed churches. A confessional hermeneutic provides an essential safeguard against exegetical, hermeneutical and doctrinal aberration, while providing a safe environment for exploration and discussion.” (p. 174) I like the last sentence, but my confusion is that Holst never shows (or even claims!) how Keller is outside the bounds of the Reformed system of doctrine.  He only claims that Keller’s shoddy exegesis at points puts him at odds with WCF 1.9.

“To borrow an expression from current hermeneutical theory, the Confession sets forth ‘supra-cultural’ truth and principles. This is certainly the case with regard to the hermeneutical method it teaches.” (p. 175)  I disagree.  All theology is application and thereby contextual (hence, cultural).  Also, which current hermeneutical theory is Holst borrowing an expression from?

I think this chapter should have been about 5-10 pages longer (like the other chapters), as Holst didn’t spend enough time carefully understanding Keller or showing how Keller’s exegesis places him outside the bounds of the Reformed confessions.

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2 thoughts on ““Engaging With Keller” Review // Ch. 5 “Timothy Keller’s Hermeneutic: An Example For the Church to Follow?” (Richard Holst)

  1. Deeply appreciate this thoughtful, prayerful series… Excellent points raised and considered. Thank you for engaging…

  2. This book just seems like it is becoming a train wreck the further you go or maybe simply a diatribe against Keller….Thanks for these reviews of each chapter. It is interesting to read them.

    One thought that I had in regard to Holst’s “extra-biblical sources may never control our exegesis…” seems a little short sighted. I mean come on…I guess he would throw out Dr. Currid’s new book, Against the Gods, because it has to depend upon a thorough knowledge of all the other ancient near Eastern religions to bring out the exegetical point of polemic in the Pentateuch. That seems to be an example of extra-biblical sources controlling exegesis, at least from the sound of his chapter, it would be (I wouldn’t think that it was controlling the exegesis, but adding to the exegesis that we can already do without knowledge of ANE Religions, however, without knowledge of ANE religions, no one would have ever seen this exegetical thread in the text.)

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